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Following setbacks in the 2019 legislative session, Maryland lawmakers this week resumed work on legislation to provide greater transparency in investigating complaints against police officers.
Under current state law, files related to officer-involved investigations are considered personnel records and are shielded from Public Information Act requests — even for the families of victims.
“We are trying to find a middle ground, and it is incredibly challenging,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke V. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) said Tuesday at a work group session attended by representatives from the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police and the Maryland Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs associations.
A slew of police-transparency bills related to officer-involved investigations were introduced by members of the Maryland General Assembly during the 90-day legislative session, which began in mid-January, but none made it into law.
Two of the bills were related to officer-involved death investigations in Caroline and Montgomery counties in 2018. Officers there had been cleared of wrongdoing, but the victims’ families were kept in the dark during the investigative process.
In one of the cases, Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. (R) became involved so the parents of Anton Black, 19, could learn how their son died more than four months earlier.
Anton’s Law, sponsored by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), would provide a complainant with a copy of the police investigative file and any prior complaints the officer received at the conclusion of the investigation.
Another bill, sponsored by Del. Erek Barron (D-Prince George’s), would have allowed for any records associated with public employee complaints of misconduct — including investigative, hearing and disciplinary files — to be deemed not personnel files and not subject to mandatory denials under the Maryland Public Information Act.
Barron’s bill, which was introduced for the third year in a row, relates to a police-conduct case involving a woman who overheard a police officer on the telephone calling her the N-word. After filing a complaint and eventually being informed the officer had been disciplined, the woman sought more information from the police investigative files to learn details about the investigation and disciplinary proceedings, but she was denied the information.
Clippinger’s bill would have provided for all police trial board hearings that are open to the public: advance notice of the hearing, an agenda, an audio recording of the hearing through a public information act request, and the findings of the hearing after final action is taken by the head of a law enforcement agency. The bill would also provide a “finding of facts,” a list of sustained charges and disciplinary action taken for an officer involved in a death investigation involving use of excessive force or violation of constitutional rights.
Clippinger’s bill, Law Enforcement Officers – Public Information, progressed the farthest in 2019, passing in the House 117-21, but it died after a hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The other bills never made it out of committee.
John Fitzgerald, first vice president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Inc., said that the police community is sympathetic to those seeking information during the investigative process, but that the investigative process is long and formal.
“When bad things happen in our communities, we really need to get in front of that,” Fitzgerald said. “We also need to talk to families … talk to them as much as we can … but we can’t divulge too much to ruin the investigation.”
Fitzgerald said after a criminal investigation of the officer is concluded, an internal administrative review begins. The process, he said, takes months.
Police are also uneasy about giving out too much personal information about a police officer that could later be found in investigative files.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard), the vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said developing community trust is important, but law enforcement officers must be included.
“There’s an important balancing act,” Atterbeary said. “If something is put up on social media, it will go viral, and that officer will be condemned, and so will their family.”
Lawmakers said they were interested in learning best practices around the country.
Clippinger said he is hopeful the work done in the last legislative session will get the group closer to passing legislation in 2020.
“We were trying to merge a lot of different ideas together,” Clippinger said. “What I came to at the end of last [session] was we really need to take a look at the larger issue — and you saw this today. You have a lot of people still trying to get the outlines of how the structure works, where the pressure points are in the system, and trying to figure out how we can best be responsive to the concerns for transparency while at the same time navigating a challenging personnel process within the police department.”
Clippinger will plan the next work group meeting for November to continue the discussions, he said.